Staying in Motion: Why Physical Activity is Essential for Kids
Improved fitness, better sleep, sharper minds and healthier bodies: Objectively we all know exercise is important. But are children getting enough of it?
How Much Exercise Do Kids Need?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children ages 6 to 17. At least three days a week this activity should be vigorous in intensity and include muscle- and bone-strengthening activities. For children ages 3 to 5 years, the department suggests 180 minutes of daily physical activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that while the 2018 DHHS guidelines don’t explicitly offer recommendations for those younger than age 3, it’s advised that infants and toddlers be active daily in developmentally and age-appropriate ways.
What Are the Benefits of Physical Activity?
These guidelines might feel like one more thing to force into an already busy schedule. Parents face immense pressure to form a well-rounded child — one who is exposed to the arts, given an opportunity to try sports and takes interest in school, all while trying to just be a kid. The good news about physical activity is that the investment in well-being pays off dividends, both literally and figuratively.
“For every $1 you spend on wellness, you save $4 on insurance claims,” says Dr. Trish Hughes, physical education teacher education coordinator at Oklahoma State University. “It’s cost effective, it sets them up to be healthy adults and it’s fun.”
The Center for Disease Control notes that regular physical activity helps children and adolescents stay in shape and control weight while reducing the risk of developing common health conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis and cancer.
While physical activity helps children become physically fit – it strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular and muscular endurance, and increases flexibility – research shows it also has positive impacts on mental abilities.
“We used to think the brain taught the body how to move, but now we know that the body teaches the brain how to think,” says Dr. Hughes, quoting P.E. educator and researcher Jean Blaydes Madigan.
A 2018 study funded by the National Institute of Health connected improved mental ability to three key activities: 60 minutes of daily physical activity, nine to 11 hours of sleep every night and no more than two hours of recreational play on screens daily. The study surveyed 4,524 children ages 8 to 11 in the areas of language, memory, planning ability and speed at brain games.
Any parent of an energetic child will tell you physical activity helps burn off energy and prepares kids for a good night of sleep.
“If we go outside and we play for a little bit; when we come back in I can definitely tell he’s more mellow,” Tulsa mom Jen Handsel says. “He’s definitely more calm, and he sleeps so much better.”
For the Handsel family, biking is the activity of choice, and 6-year-old Noah is working towards getting his training wheels off. When he isn’t biking, Noah enjoys soccer, skateboarding and basketball. Handsel says he spends about two hours playing outside daily, and it makes a difference in his behavior.
Tulsan Amber Green echoes the same sentiment, offering that her 4-year-old Alessia communicates better and is more willing to sit still for bedtime stories when she has spent ample time being active. Green says Alessia plays outside regularly and many days wakes up and heads straight to the backyard. Inside she enjoys staying active with Cosmic Kids Yoga videos on YouTube, bouncing on a mini trampoline and dancing.
Are Kids Getting Enough Exercise?
Despite its many positive benefits, Dr. Hughes says schools aren’t teaching enough physical education. In many school districts, P.E. is disappearing in elementary curriculum and vanishes entirely once a child transitions to middle school. Instead, community resources, like availability of recreational teams, and level of parent interest are often greater indicators of whether or not a child is physically active. Dr. Hughes says when children miss out on physical activity, they’re missing out on health.
“A moving person is healthier than the person who isn’t moving,” she says. “That’s all there is to it.”
Some parents may find it difficult to ensure that their children get regular exercise, so they opt for organized sports, or lessons such as swim, gymnastics or dance. Even very young children can get involved with a developmentally appropriate program such as SoccerCity’s Lil’ Kickers. When the focus is on fun, these programs can be a high energy way to put regular activity on the calendar. Lil’ Kickers is specifically geared toward children ages 18 months to 9 years. With the youngest kickers, coaches use creative play, bubbles and bright, colorful props to keep kids interested and in motion.
“Going to the zoo and feeding the hippos their blueberries as a zookeeper is a lot more appealing to kids 5 years old and younger compared to just dribbling a soccer ball to the goal multiple times,” says Dustin Knight, Lil’ Kickers and camps director at SoccerCity. If the activity doesn’t fit the developmental level of the child, it won’t be interesting.
Just as important as the exercise component, the program offers an opportunity for children to be around their peers and build confidence. Lil’ Kickers can ease the transition from home life to school. Knight says his 1-year-old struggled with Mom’s Day Out, and getting him on the field for Lil’ Kickers made a difference.
“Ultimately the goal is for kids to have fun, stay energetic, be out and amongst their peers, and learn soccer along the way,” Knight says.
While 60 minutes daily should be the goal, Dr. Hughes says any activity is better than none. Families don’t have to register 10,000 steps daily on their FitBits to be physically active. Start with a goal that’s reasonable and attainable for your family and increase the levels of activity from there. Physical activity is reinforcing: Doing it makes you feel good and want to do more.
When it comes to deciding how to be more active as a family, Handsel recommends discussing what each family member is interested in and choosing an activity that suits everyone. Handsel and her husband grew up biking and knew they wanted to pass the hobby along to their son.
Green, her husband and daughter Alessia hike regularly as a family. Pre-COVID-19, the Greens enjoyed hiking with groups at the Oxley Nature Center, Turkey Mountain and Ray Harrell Nature Center.
“The health benefits from physical activity only happen if it’s a lifestyle,” Dr. Hughes says. “Doing anything is better than doing nothing, even if it’s 10 minutes to take a walk with your child. That’s always time invested, right? It’s not time spent. It‘s invested.”